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Accepting the Accent

A trip Down Under helps one traveler embrace her authentic Oklahoma twang


spinner image illustration of billboard that says it don't amount to a hill o beans; shrubs surround billboard with hill in the distance
Chris Lyons

“G’day!” chirped a cheery Aussie voice as I walked into the Sandpalms Roadhouse in Northern Australia.

Like many of Australia’s roadhouses, the ramshackle little restaurant/gas station/boardinghouse had warped wooden floors and the ghost smell of deep-fried meat pies.

“Howdy! How y’all dern?” I quipped back, the sound of Oklahoma's dusty terrain rolling off my tongue like the infamous wind sweepin’ down the plain.

“I love your accent! Where are you from?” the young hostess asked, grinning in glee at a country drawl I had spent most of my life trying to cover up. “Ahm from Oklahoma. You know where that is? It sits right there on top of Texas,” I said, adding a little more hot sauce to my natural accent.

In Australia’s wild and rowdy Northern Territory, my Okie accent was swirling stronger than moonshine. It felt like the dialect in this remote outback and my Southern twang were kissing cousins.

At 51, I had fought most of my life to beat that red dirt sound out of my speech. I forced my tongue into contortions that didn’t quite fit because I felt that having a deep drawl came with judgmental assumptions of simpleminded ignorance.

On this trip, however, I not only embraced the long vowels and country-speak that embarrassed me back home but amplified it, much to the delight of the Australians who thrilled me with their own thick dialects. These interactions made me curious about the history behind my sound.

“Maybe allowing my authentic sound to sing to the rafters like a hellfire preacher on Sunday has made me just a little more authentic to myself, and gosh darn it, I’m happier than a pig in the sun about it.”

 

Listen up, y’all

While researching the topic, I found that Southern U.S. accents have a strong association with agriculture, so those with thick country accents tend to live in rural areas. Throughout history and across most countries, rural accents were deemed “uneducated” and “unsophisticated” by urban dwellers.

The dropping of the “r” that defined high-society speak in cities in Georgia or South Carolina may have originated in the mid-1700s when wealthy British traders tried to sound more polished. Think of Scarlett O’Hara and Southern belles cooing, “Pass the buttah, please.”

But because the South is a large area encompassing many states, different flavors of “Southern” exist. People in Tennessee tend to use long “o” sounds and drop the “g” in words like sittin’, spittin’ and cussin’.

In the southern coastal states of Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, “drawer” turns into “drahwer,” and in Texas, the sounds go as flat as the plains with words like “fire” sounding like “far.”

“When groups of people are separated for a period of time, their language use starts to change in a different way from the other groups that are not a part of their kind of speech community,” explained Valerie Freeman, an assistant professor at Oklahoma State University and director of the school’s sociophonetics lab. “So language is always changing. Pronunciation is always changing. Grammar is always changing. When you’re a part of a group, you talk like that group and you change together, different from other groups that you’re not a part of,” Freeman says.

And when people are different from each other, they think differently of each other. “It’s not about how the words sound. Nobody ever said that there was such thing as a stupid verb, or an ugly consonant. But people … have those feelings and stereotypes about social groups,” says Dennis Preston, an adjunct professor of linguistics at the University of Kentucky. “Without a stigma of social groups, there would be no stigma of language, right? So if you believe that a group of people are dumb, then it's pretty easy for you to begin to transfer that to the way they talk,” he adds.

I never wanted to be thought of as sounding dumb or unsophisticated, so I beat that poor little accent like a three-legged dawg, shoved her deep in the shadows of my mouth and only let her out when I’d had too much to drink.

And I thought it worked … until I started traveling.

In New York City, I felt like my accent stood out like a Broadway sign. In South Africa, I sounded as flat as a pancake. In California, pronouncing “wine’ as “wahn” gave me away, and I was inevitably asked where I was from. I always cringed at the question, but what I didn’t realize was that my sound also made me stand out in ways I couldn’t even imagine.

 

Unleashing my accent

spinner image heide brandes crouching down in front of a crocodile
Heide Brandes embraced adventure and her authentic accent while exploring Australia's Northern Territory.
Courtesy Heide Brandes

My friend Lyle is probably the most “Southern” sounding person I know. During our travels together, I’ve seen him walk into a bar in Talkeetna, Alaska, and cajole shots of whiskey out of every patron with his unapologetic use of “raht” instead of “right” and “may” instead of “me.” In Portland, Oregon, people flocked to him to hear the way he spoke. Unlike me, he embraced his sound and made it part of a charm that he wielded like a weapon to break down barriers and make friends.

So, when I traveled to Australia for my two-week solo exploration, I decided to channel Lyle and unleash my twang. I was shocked at how easily that Okie sound came back, and how comfortable it felt sliding over my tongue.

And I was thrilled to discover just how much people loved it. As soon as I stepped off the plane, people smiled when I spoke. They laughed when I threw in some Southernisms like, “It don’t amount to a hill o’ beans,” and they bought me beer so I’d keep talking.

At the Sandpalms Roadhouse, I sat at a picnic table with a huge Australian biker with a head full of fire-red hair and his girlfriend, an Aboriginal woman, and we competed with our accents. The red-headed biker and I dueled to see who could sound the most “country” in our respective accents (he ended up winning) and we drank cold beer and talked about how Brisbane accents sound different from Darwin ones.

And those Australian experiences changed me. These days, I don’t try to strangle out my sound anymore. Maybe I’ve simply reached an age where I don’t care as much about what other people think. Maybe allowing my authentic sound to sing to the rafters like a hellfire preacher on Sunday has made me just a little more authentic to myself, and gosh darn it, I’m happier than a pig in the sun about it.

And, in learning about my own sound, I’ve also learned to not judge another person by how their vowels fit or the way their consonants dance. When it comes down to it, I guess it’s all about authenticity. If you sound as proper as an English lord, then that’s you. If you sound as country as cornbread, then embrace your twang — and spread on some extra honey.

 

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